If one has spent some time reading the Buddha’s discourses, it is fairly easy to see that Zen masters, especially, in the T’ang period and before were either quoting from certain Sutras or were making indirect references to them. Just recently, I created this mini sermon from bits and pieces of various Sutras.
According to the Nirvana Sutra all beings possess the Buddha-nature but do not realize it. This original nature is a brightness or awakening (明). But beings are without brightness or awakening (無明). This is analogous to a mirror which is originally bright but which is temporarily covered by dust thus losing its brightness. In the Chan tradition beings are first taught that they have the Buddha-nature; then they are taught how to remove the covering of defilements which obstruct awakening. Seeing this brightness firsthand is awakening or the same, seeing one's true nature. Today, very few awaken because they mistake non-enlightenment (無明) for enlightenment (明) and the mind of birth and death for the self-existent pure Mind (自性淸淨心).
I even added some Chinese Buddhist terms using Soothill’s work, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. What I came to understand after doing this mini sermon of mine is the Buddha’s discourses were inspirational, but more to the point, they begged commentary and were easily expandable. Sutras act as food for thought, and in the hands of a skillful teacher can be of tremendous help to the beginner.
Now to the point I wish to make. The practice of Zen which puts the discourses to the back burner and seated meditation on the front, is doing the struggling adept a tremendous disservice . This might be okay for laypersons who, for the most part, use zazen just to relax. But for the serious student it is almost a disaster. This unhelpful situation represents, as I see it, somebody’s theory that zazen will have a tendency to make one wise while the study of the Buddha’s discourses won’t be as effective. I would argue that understanding the discourses of the Buddha and meditation are coordinate; moreover, meditation is not just ritualistic sitting.
Getting people to open their eyes as to what meditation is really all about is difficult, given the weight of wrong expectations many beginners have about Zen, some of whom even have the opinion that a study of the Buddha’s discourses is unnecessary. However, the more important discourses describe our inner most being and its relationship with the phenomenal world including our temporal bodies. They also serve to describe the meditative territory and experience. Neglecting their study, meditation just becomes a kind of waiting-for-nothing—not an exploration of our connection with our mental world, pushing forward through this world to the limits of consciousness and beyond it thus reaching self-existent pure Mind.